Story | Plot | Narrative | Novel | Book : Part 2 ‘The purpose of narrative’

Continuing the series of blog entries on story, plot, narrative, novel and book, this time I am going to explore the concept of ‘narrative’. However, this time I am going to focus less on its definition but rather its purpose, especially in relation to both story and plot.

First, symptomatic of the lazy blurring of boundaries between these concepts (see the previous post), Wikipedia has confused narrative with story in its first sentence. However, it has usefully pointed out that the word has its root in the Latin verb narrare ‘to tell’. And this helps give us our first clue as to the purpose of narrative: it is all about the ‘telling’ of a story.

I’ll refresh our memories and paste the definition for ‘story’ below.

A story can be defined as: the journey (events and actions) a character (or group) takes from imbalance to balance.

A story is an abstract concept; it exists only in our mind. And a story does not exist in our mind until it is told (arguably, it also does not exist until it is also heard or read).

And narrative is the mechanism through which a story is told.

Narrative is the means by which the wholly abstract entity of a story and the sequential concepts of a plot become realised. You can explain the details of a story (‘the story of Finding Nemo is about a father learning to let his child go free in the world’) but as soon as you start trying to ‘tell’ it (‘There was this barracuda…’) you have immediately created a narrative. It doesn’t matter how loosely or lightly you try to tell the story, you are still employing narrative voice.

So, to narrate a story, is to tell it. As writers, we can think mainly on this as a decision-making process. Every time we try to tell a story we are making thousands of narrative decisions.

Although it’s a little reductive, I’ll list some of them below:

Which plot events should I describe and in what detail?

‘Time passed’ is a marvellous tool in narration — we have no need to know what happened in the time that passed, as either it has no bearing on the story being told or the writer is deliberately obscuring plot for suspense or other purposes. Ellipsis can be a powerful tool for a writer. The other extreme is to add extraneous detail, for world-building purposes, or perhaps just for the jokes! You’ll find in highly machine-tooled Hollywood movies that every scene and line of dialogue has a purpose, whether it’s to reveal character, plot or story. On the other hand, a classic example of breaking these rules — the McDonalds in Paris scene from Pulp Fiction — has been loved because (a) it seemed so absurd and (b) it was funny. The narrative decision to include these scenes — or to leave them out — has an effect on the novel or film as a whole. But the decision has no impact on the story or plot you are telling.

When should I start and when should I finish the story?

Some novels start with birth and carry on through to the significant climax, some focus on a few focussed days, some a single day, some even more extreme fractions of time. The decision when to start and finish the telling of a story is a narrative decision. The story will remain the story and the plot will remain the plot no matter where you decide to start and finish your narrative. The purpose as to why you start late or early has a bearing on the effects you want on the reader.

Who is telling the story?

This area has resulted in a broad range of tedious analysis and advice. You know all about first-person, third-person, unreliable narrators etc. It would be boring to say much more.

But what is the purpose of narrative? Well, if we accept that it is the mechanism for delivery of a story, then we could argue that its purpose should be to tell a story in its most straightforward manner. However, this would be disengenuous. We all use narrative tricks (cliffhanger, anyone?) and to pretend that narrative decisions are easy would be a lie. Every time we scratch our nose and contemplate a keyboard, we are making decisions as to how we are going to approach this moment in the story, this episode in the plot, this moment. They are crucial decisions and we are writing them for one reason only: because we want somebody to start reading our story and then to continue reading to the end.

The narrative should make the story engaging, interesting, exciting, enjoyable, surprising and emotional for a reader.

My personal opinion is that the extreme end of narrative playfulness reveals nothing more than the writer’s high opinion of their own cleverness. The more extreme, the more jarring the narrative decision made, the more we lose sight of the story that the narrative is supposed to be helping be told. And it’s in the story that the reader gets their sustenance. We can be intellectually challenged by a complex bit of plotting and we can be amused at the sheer avant-garde wit of telling the story from the perspective of an earwig, but really we close a book with a forlorn sigh because we cared about the characters.

At least, this is the opinion of a writer of science fiction. It is fair to say that, across most popular genre writing, narrative follows a straightforward, traditional line. Romance, historical fiction, thrillers all eschew too much narrative trickery — because they jar the reader away from the story and remind them that they are reading a book, engaging with an artefact that somebody has constructed. We want somebody to be transported to a distant spacetime; we need that suspension of disbelief.

Well-written narrative should allow your reader to accompany your characters on their journey, wherever that may take them.

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